Service, faith, true compassion: Queen Elizabeth’s special virtues
The outpouring of tributes to Queen Elizabeth II has been overwhelming. They have come from statesmen, monarchs, presidents and publics around the world. And it is important to consider why that is.
It is not just to do with the Queen’s extraordinary lifespan — remarkable though that was. Nor was it simply to do with the sparkle, wisdom and grace that she brought to her meetings with presidents and publics alike. It was the fact that she embodied virtues and values which our age still admires, though seems to have lost.
She was the last link back to the “greatest generation” that Britain and America produced in the 1930s and ’40s. The generation that faced down the darkest of all threats to our freedom. When the Second World War ended the then-Princess Elizabeth — who had served in the forces herself — was in uniform on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Alongside her were her parents — then King and Queen — and Winston Churchill.
It is the values of their generation that the Queen continued to embody throughout her life. As a young woman she committed herself to her nation and promised that whether her life was long or short she would dedicate herself to its service.
That idea — of service — of putting others above yourself, and putting your country above everything but God is an idea that has become unpopular in much of Britain as it has in America. But it is the noblest of ideals: a demonstration of sacrifice and of a lack of self-centeredness. It was at the core of the Queen’s being.
So too was her faith. Throughout her reign Elizabeth II also held the title “Defender of the Faith.” This was not simply a historic title, but a duty she took seriously. She never preached, or told other people what to believe. But she talked often about the importance of her Christian faith in her own life, of the Christian values she held to and the Christian idea which she aimed to live up to.
Perhaps this was one of the reasons that she was able to have that crucial value so missing from our age of fragility. The quality of resilience. As a young girl, in October 1940, she gave her first broadcast address to the children of the Commonwealth — many of whom had been sent far from home because of the war. In that broadcast she concluded: “We know, every one of us, that in the end all will be well; for God will care for us and give us victory and peace.”
Throughout her life that sense of confidence — of resilience — never left her. In those days there wasn’t time to grumble or moan about your lot. Nobody had time. There were more important things than “me” to focus on.
She also knew what it meant to show true compassion and understanding. Not the treacly, insincere kind so common in our time, but a deep understanding of the tragedies of life that all of us at some point go through.
When America was mourning after the attacks of 9/11, the Queen sent one of her most heartfelt messages to the people of New York. As read by her ambassador at the memorial service at St. Thomas on 5th Avenue, she shared her sympathies with New Yorkers during these “dark and harrowing times.” She finished, “My thoughts and my prayers are with you all now and in the difficult days ahead. But nothing that can be said can begin to take away the anguish and the pain of these moments. Grief is the price we pay for love.”
One of her special virtues was her ability not just to show courage and resilience herself but to encourage it in others. That is true leadership. In 2020 as the whole world was going into lockdown over the coronavirus there was worry — even panic — everywhere. The British prime minister was in intensive care, feared to be near death. The nation was locked in their houses. And at that moment it was the Queen whom people wanted to hear from and the Queen who knew what was needed. In her live address to the nation she promised that “better days will return: We will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.” Nobody needed to hear anything else. As she had said all those decades earlier, as a teenage girl, we knew afterwards that, “All will be well.”
They do not make people like those of that generation anymore. The generations that have come after — including certain royals — are cut from different, perhaps softer, cloth. The concept of there being something bigger than yourself has been lost on some for the time being at least. Perhaps the Queen’s passing will remind them — and all of us — of virtues that we will miss if they are permanently gone.